Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mizuki Shigeru: Kappa sen'ichiya

Mizuki Shigeru 水木しげる. Kappa sen’ichiya 河童千一夜 (A kappa thousand and one nights). 1993.

To be precise, this is a 1993 bunkobun reprint. All but one of the stories were originally published in 1969 and 1970 in Action Comics アクションコミックス, then collected in 1970 under the title Kappa kô 河童膏 (Kappa ointment); this was republished under the present title in 1976, then augmented in 1986 with one more story, first published in 1980. The 1993 bunkobon edition I read is a reprint of the 1986 edition. I note all this because the 1993 edition includes none of this information: nothing to tell you that these stories weren’t new in 1993.

In the 1960s, Mizuki had a very popular series about kappa called Kappa no Sanpei 河童の三平 (Sanpei the Kappa); it was contemporary with Kitarô and (caveat: I haven’t read it) was a similar thing, sort of aimed at kids and centering around a cute/creepy monster. These stories are a little later, and they don’t feature Sanpei; they’re all about kappa but the stories themselves aren’t connected, and kappa are depicted slightly differently in each one. Moreover, the stories are a little darker, with more loose ends and rough edges; they seem to bear more or less the same relation to Kappa no Sanpei that Kitarô yawa 鬼太郎夜話 does to the main Kitarô series.

By darker, I mean a couple of things. They’re a little more horror-oriented than his kiddie monster tales. They’re closer in spirit to the stories collected in Kaiki kashihon meisakusen and Kyôfu kashihon meisakusen: bad things happen to characters, and endings are usually downbeat. The first story, “Kyûri jigoku きゅうり地獄” (Cucumber hell), has a kappa getting caught in an endless series of Sisyphean punishments. No exit. Elsewhere we have a fair kappa maiden living in eternal solitude after her fox lover is killed; kappa captured and killed and exhibited by humans; a kappa falling in love with a ghost who eventually rejects him. The style is Mizuki’s patented mix of realistic backgrounds and cartoony characters, but the fates of these humorously drawn ghoulies are as haunted as the legends that inspire them.

They’re also dark in that most of the time the kappa’s fates are sealed by their interactions with humans. There’s broad irony here, in that traditionally kappa are thought of as monsters who, if they don’t always actively prey on humans, certainly make life difficult for us. And Mizuki’s kappa are mischievous, but they always come out the losers in their encounters with people. Take the poor kappa who, overcome with a desire for a human female, hides in the latrine of a samurai’s house to peep at the samurai’s daughter (a wonderfully Tanizakian detail). Okay, this is kind of mean. But to punish him the samurai cuts off the kappa’s hand and holds it hostage, thus enslaving the kappa for years. Hardly just desserts.

In fact, in most of these stories the kappa are a version of Mizuki’s suffering Everyman: average guys victimized by forces beyond their control, plucky but incompetent. Mizuki emphasizes this by depicting several of the kappa protagonists with makeshift glasses held on with string; this is a detail he uses on some of his more hapless human characters, including the soldiers meant as a stand-in for Mizuki himself in his war tales.

Stories like these are why I love Mizuki so much. Greil Marcus writes of Bob Dylan that his treatment of folk songs and folk themes reveals the “old, weird America” that lives therein; Mizuki understands the old, weird Japan. It’s a dark, dank place of creepy-crawlies, squishy-squirmies, and heebie-jeebies.

And, occasionally, uncanny beauty, like this depiction of the kappa’s desire for a human woman. It's a disturbing image, to be sure (it's the title page to one of the stories, and depicts a mood, not a scene; it's far more sexually explicit than anything in any of the stories). Far more disturbing than it may appear at first: I think the swirl surrounding the figures is meant to suggest they're underwater, meaning the woman is either drowned or under the kappa's spell. It's horrific. But it's other things, as well. Beautiful, because of the way Mizuki (a terrific draftsman, among other things) depicts the curves of the woman's body, the arc of her back and hair, the placidity of her face. And comic, because of the imbalance in size and grace between the woman and the kappa, a small ugly monster. The horror, the beauty, and the humor all reinforce each other, making this a potent representation of a folkloric motif. (And more besides: if the kappa is Everyman, then this is a representation of Everyman's desire for Woman. Taken that way, what does it say about male desire? That it proceeds from something small, grotesque, shameful, and is directed at something great and beautiful? This image is perhaps an analog to the little Screamers Munch put in the corner of his Madonnas.)

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